Shopping From Your Pantry First: Save Money, Eat Fresher

I’ve recently been looking at my cupboards lately with some concern. I have rows of dried goods stacked neatly in mason jars. Bottles of tea, 18 of them, lined up neatly next to one another, below the mason jars and next to the large collection of cooking oils I have. There are also the usual suspects, bags of sugar, pasta and sauces. And the pantry doesn’t look much better. There are stacks of partially used grains and beans, back ups of what’s stored in the rows of mason jars. It’s kind of a mess and a little disorganized.

And what’s more, some of those grains and oils have been taking up residency for years! Sure, all the beans, grains and teas look good displayed in the glass jars, but this is my cupboard, not a museum. I was thinking about what happened to get me to this place, and I vaguely remember shopping for groceries, picking up bags of beans, pasta, “staples” that I thought I would need to make meals. Only those meals never came, and I am left with a cupboard full of food that has gone neglected for nearly half a decade.

This is no bueno. I am treating my food stores like you would curate pieces for a museum. But this is no way to nourish yourself. Eating hoarded goods that are years old is unnecessary and more to the point, tells me something about the ways I’m relating to food. Why am I holding on to these items? Why am I massing these foods to begin with? The answers to these questions were directly related to the ways I was brought up, and how I learned to, or not to nourish myself and my body.

I was brought up in a house that was barren of a lot of things. Mostly love, but food was a close second. We always had enough to eat growing up, but there was no deviating from the plan my caregivers had mapped out. We had the same five or six meals, for years on repeat. There were always boxes of cereal and bottles of soda in the cupboards, and sometimes leftovers in the fridge.

I was often uncertain of what to eat, or what I could eat due to my caregiver often saying, “there’s a house full of food, I don’t know why you’re hungry”. Though was severely scolded when I attempted to defrost pork chops one day in an attempt to make a meal with the house full of food I was in. The messages were mixed and confusing.

And to add to the confusion, I was never taught the basics of how to take care of my nutritional needs. I was never shown how to budget for groceries, taught how to cook meals for myself or even that I should eat when I’m hungry! I skipped breakfast and lunch for decades because of these lessons, one of them being coffee as a meal substitute. I also didn’t start grocery shopping until I was in my late twenties, or really cook meals for myself to eat for the week until seven years ago! This seems crazy to me thinking about it now, but food, along with a myriad of other topics, just didn’t get discussed.

If you’ve read my post on rotating your food stores, I go over this in a bit more detail. The ways I was taught to neglect my nutritional needs. I also had some suggestions on how to change some of the old habits that I’ve cultivated from a life’s time worth of being a drift in a sea of food insecurity. But I’m back with a plan and want to share with you what I’m doing in my kitchen to help change my relationship with food and how I care for my nutritional needs. Let me show what I’ve come up with!

As the title of this post suggests, the beginning of this journey starts in the pantry. Among the bottles of carefully curated seeds, grains, beans and flours, this is where I had been amassing large quantities of food items with no intended purpose. I have close to thirty bottles of dried goods on my shelf! So the first step was to take stock of the ingredients I have on hand and do some research on what types of recipes would be able to utilize the ingredients I already have.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Minimalist Baker is a great resource for using ingredients I have on hand because a good portion of her recipes use ten ingredients or fewer, and most of them are pantry staples like onions and garlic (she also has a great post on how to stock a pantry here). But you can use whichever site you enjoy the recipes from. Most sites will have a search bar where you can type in an ingredient and do a quick search for corresponding recipes. Minimalist Baker has a search by ingredient filter which is ideal for this situation.

So after I take stock of what I have in my pantry, I choose three to four ingredients to focus my meal prep around. Let’s say I’ve chosen the five pound bag of cranberries that have been collecting dust, the jar of kidney beans that are old enough to eat solid foods, the two bags of black beans that are surprisingly and relatively young considering their shelf mates, and a half of a jar of yellow lentils.

I take these four ingredients and do a quick search on my go to recipe website. I find that I can use the Kidney and black beans in a chili, with onion and sweet potatoes I already have. So I put the few items on the shopping list that are missing from the pantry, from the recipe, and move onto the next one I’ve chosen.

Overnight oats are already on the menu for the next few weeks, so adding the cranberries to the mix with the seed and nuts I pick up from the market was an easy match. And the ingredients for the curried, lemon lentils I planned for were already on hand. I put a few more ingredients on the list, some staples and for my self-care Sunday dinner, and my shopping list was complete. I only had about a dozen items on my list, and even shopping at Whole Foods, my grocery bill was still only 45$ for two weeks!

If you use the grocery store for supplemental supplies to your pantry, and you shop mostly whole foods, i.e. fresh produce and unprocessed meats, generic brands, bulk section items like grains and beans and staples like butter and milk, your grocery bill is surprisingly light. You also have the added benefit of eating a healthier diet full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. And the fresher the better. The longer food sits around unused, the less nutritional value it retains.

I’ve also come up with a way to organize my shopping list so I can easily scan my recipes and know which ingredients to purchase. First, I make a list of all the separate ingredients from all of my staple recipes. So I have two lists, one list of recipes, and the other a list of grocery items that are ingredients to the recipes on the first list.

Next, I assign a different symbol to each recipe. For example, if chili is on my staple recipe list, I give that recipe a symbol such as +. Then I go down the separate list of ingredients and put a + symbol next to any ingredients that are in the recipe with the corresponding symbol.

I repeat this process for each recipe in my staples list till all of my ingredients have a symbol next to them representing a staple recipe. This way when I choose the recipes I’m cooking for the next two to three weeks from my staple recipe list, I can quickly scan the ingredients list, using the recipe symbol to see what I need to stock up on.

This works particularly well with double batches of recipes or multiples. For example, say I’m making three recipes that all use garlic and one of the recipes I’m making is going to be a double batch. On the ingredients list, garlic may look like this, “@ # $ % + * Garlic”. The symbols all represent recipes, but the recipes I’m making for the following three weeks are, % + and a double batch of *. So when I add the symbols together, + % 2*, I know I have to have at least enough garlic for four recipes. So when I put garlic on the shopping list, I put it on as “garlic x 4”. This way I can purchase just what I need for the recipes I’m cooking without buying a lot of surplus. While also helping to keep my food stock fresher.

Speaking of fresh stock, if you have a green thumb, this is a perfect opportunity to shop super fresh, real local and on the cheap! I’m lucky enough to have a sizeable vegetable garden. Last year we didn’t need to buy garlic until about a few weeks ago and for the cost of a few packets of seed, your return on investment is ridiculously high. It does require planning and maintenance, and to plant vegetables that you will actually use in recipes.

Planning is important in that if you like cucumbers, but don’t know that they are prolific producers and you plant too many plants, you’re going to be swimming in brine from all the pickles you’ll be making. So when planning a garden, do the research and know what to plant, when to plant and how many to plant. And you don’t need a lot of space to grow your own. Container gardens are popular in cities where green space is scarce. Maybe start with growing a few of the herbs and spices you use most frequently to have a fresh selection on hand when it comes time to cook. And how do you know what to cook or grow?

This was something I struggled with for a while until I read a post on how to set up a pantry. Dana suggested to pick ten or so recipes that you cook often and buy your pantry staples from that list. It made so much sense to me that I immediately got to selecting the recipes I used most frequently, and put them in a bookmark folder labeled as such.

The only problem with this method is, there is a lack of variety. And I’m not cooking the same meals in the summer as I am in the winter. So I decided to create four folders, with ten recipes each corresponding to each season with those ingredients that are available during the time of year. This way I’ll have three months to use up whatever food I have from the list of staples I use, and I always have something new to choose from. Paired with my self-care Sunday dinners where I chose a new recipe to try each week, I won’t be short on new recipes to try.

I also batch cook my meals for the weeks ahead. This way I know I’ll have what I need to make my meals well in advance, because I’ve already got my recipes picked out. This way my shopping list only a matter of quickly scanning my pantry to see what I’m missing.

This may seem overwhelming at first glance. And it can be a bit much to take on. What I find that works best to help ease some of the tension of preparing meals is giving yourself plenty of time. I usually sit down at some point during the week and plan out what the next three weeks are going to look like. Here is where I plan for the day to day stuff, exercize, appointments and general domestics like when I’m cooking and when I’m going shopping for my cooking day.

This takes the stress out of not knowing when I’ll have the time to fit it into my schedule while also giving me plenty of time to plan for my upcoming shopping trip and cooking day. I’ll start by picking a day to shop and cook, and the night before I’ll check the three or four recipes I have for ingredients. I’ll shop from my pantry first, then check the recipe and find the items I’m missing. These get added to the list, along with what I’m getting low on and I’m ready to shop the following day.

On shopping day, I take my list and usually shop after work. When I get home, I set the tone for the night by getting my area ready with my recipes, light a candle and play some soft music. I turn off the harsh over head lights and then start the cooking process making sure to go as slow as I need to so I don’t feel rushed. Meal prep has become an integral part of my self-care routine and something I find great joy in.

With all the ingredients prepped before I jump into the cooking process, the recipe comes together in no time and the stress is nearly non-existent. I also keep my meals for the next few weeks in glass jars in the fridge, so seeing them lined up on the counter to cool, before they go into the fridge with the relaxing setting carries with it a sense of accomplishment.

And this brings us back to the starting new, healthier habits surrounding our food choices. Now that we’ve cleaned out the old items, and made room and space for new and fresher ingredients to be rotated in and out of use, the new question is, how much food do we really need to keep on hand?

This answer will be different for every person. I know that my food needs are different from a family of five. But where do we draw the line on what is enough? For me, maybe a goal of having enough staple ingredients for a month’s worth of staple recipes is optimal. This way my food stores stay fresh and I can incorporate new recipes into my meal plan as I see fit. Also I’m not holding onto items I don’t need because I’m afraid that if I don’t have them, something terrible will happen.

And that is the main goal. To take the fear and anxiety of preparing meals out of our food and the ways we nourish ourselves. It’s a little different if you’ve had negative experiences with and around food, but eating is so closely linked to our safety and well being that it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you were left in the dark as I was, fumbling around trying to understand how to care for yourself without guidance, it can feel scary to go it alone.

I hope this has been helpful to you in some way. If you have any comments or methods you use that you’ve found help you in the kitchen, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. And as always, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Spice Management” by Sharon Drummond is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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